An interview with Celeste Ng

Since I started my blog, I have been lucky enough to experience some incredible things. But from a personal fan-girl point of view, getting to interview Celeste Ng (pronounced ing) is definitely one of my favourite experiences. Celeste is the author of two novels, Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She is a mother to one son.

Having read both of her novels this year, I was incredibly excited to be able to interview her for my blog. In fact, it took me absolutely ages to decide on my questions because I was really nervous as to what she would think of them! I absolutely loved her responses, and she's still making me question who I am through her writing!

I found that Little Fires Everywhere is the kind of book that when you're not reading it, you're thinking about it, and I even dreamed about it! How intense is it for you when you are writing the book for a long time, having to live and breathe the characters?

For me, story always grows out of the characters, so I spend a lot of time thinking about their lives, who they are, how they’d react to different situations. What their formative memories are, what they’re afraid of, what embarrasses them. It’s a little bit like being a method actor: I look around and try and see the world through their eyes. I often have insomnia, so when I’m awake in the small hours of the morning, I’m usually thinking about one character or another and imagining what it’s like to be them. There’s always at least a part of my mind that’s in the book, even when I’m doing other things.

I questioned the kind of person I think I am, and really looked deeper within myself after reading the book. Is it a conscious decision of yours when writing to encourage the reader to question their own cultural biases?

Absolutely. As a writer, I believe my job is not to provide answers, but to ask questions. One of the great things that fiction can do is to show how things are more complicated than they might seem at first, to hold open a space for nuance. When I write, I’m always writing about something that puzzles me, and writing towards a place of understanding. I’m writing to figure out why a character does something—so I need to know more about them at the end than I do at the beginning; I need to see them more fully at the end, as more complicated people. So does the reader, or I haven’t done my job.

In my review of Little Fires Everywhere on my YouTube channel, I described the book as "all-consuming" because I simply had to keep reading to know what was going to happen next. Is it ever frustrating as an author that you spend such a long time writing a book only for someone to greedily read it in less than two days?

Never—I take that as a huge compliment! I want the reader to be drawn into my books, to feel like they can’t wait to find out the entire story. When I’m reading, I like to be carried away myself. We often use the phrase “page-turner” as a slight, but I don’t think that a book that reads fast, or that is gripping, has to have less substance. I care less about how long it takes a reader to finish the book and more about whether a reader keeps thinking about the characters after the book is done.

As a mother, I relate to the sacrifices that both Elena and Mia have made because of their children. Did you set out to portray this realistic version of motherhood?

I’ve always been interested in questions of motherhood, partly because I’m both a mother and a daughter myself. It can be such an intense relationship, in both positive and negative ways, and yet it’s very different for everyone. I wanted to look at some of the ways that relationship might play out.

The transracial custody battle within the book eloquently depicts the rift between social class and privilege. It is uncomfortable to read, especially the attempts made by the McCulloughs to ensure the child is connected to their birth culture. Was the court case based on any specific historical case, or was it there to ensure the reader further questions their concept of privilege?

I looked at two real-life cases here in the US for inspiration: the “Baby M” case, in which a surrogate mother changed her mind about giving up her baby and kidnapped her baby back; and the “Baby Jessica” case, in which an affluent couple adopted a poor single mother’s baby, and then the baby’s biological father came back into the picture and sued to get custody of the baby. I drew on those cases but added the element of race, to complicate them further, and to ask the reader to consider whether (and how) ethnicity factors into all of this. But I hope that when readers read that courtroom scene, they see that the McCulloughs are indeed trying—even though the cultural resources available to them are limited—and that they truly love the baby they wish to adopt. I wanted the case to be complicated and for the reader to be torn: there’s no easy answer here, and I didn’t want there to be.

Your characters are perfectly imperfect, and wonderfully relevant in society now. I thought there was a subtle political undercurrent throughout the book. Do you find that your writing gives you a platform to magnify current political issues?

I never thought of myself as a political writer, but in the past year and a half, I’ve come to accept that my very existence is politicized, whether I like it or not. I’m a child of immigrants, a woman, a person of color, a mother of a biracial child, the sister of a person with a physical disability—there’s really no aspect of my life that isn’t politicized in some way by our current cultural discourse. I’m still adjusting to the idea that anyone cares what I have to say, but if I have a platform, I want to use it to talk about things that are important to me. In my writing, I never come to the page planning to make statements, but the issues that I think about and the world I live in inevitably work their way into my fiction. Off the page, on Twitter and elsewhere, I’m more deliberate in trying to use my microphone to call attention to issues that we need to address, and I’m grateful to have that opportunity.

Growing up, I was obsessed with reading Enid Blyton, but my favourite book was One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which I have read countless times. What was your favourite childhood book?

Ah, I love Enid Blyton and I loved One Hundred and One Dalmatians, too! I was a voracious reader as a kid, so I can’t narrow to just one: I loved everything by Roald Dahl, especially Matilda; the Little House in the Big Woods series by Laura Ingalls Wilder; the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum; The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett; and the Edward Eager books, among many others. I still have my childhood copies and am starting to read them with my son.

Who inspired you when you were younger?

My mother was very into biographies of famous people, especially women, so my inspirations were rather lofty: Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur. My mother and sister were big inspirations to me as well, as both of them were women in male-dominated fields (chemistry and engineering) and set me a wonderful example of doing what moves you, regardless of obstacles.

What advice would you give to children who would aspire to be an author when they are older?

Read a lot—reading is fuel for writing. Read whatever you like, but also try things you’re not sure you’ll like, just to see. Think of it as tasting a new food: you don’t need to finish the whole thing, but at least take a bite. You might be surprised. And write a lot, because writing is a skill like playing piano or playing a sport, and it takes practice.

Thank you so much to Celeste for taking the time to answer my questions, it has been a huge honour. I think that she really made me realise that as bloggers or influencers, we really should use our platforms to promote social change where possible. An example of this would be that although I have mentioned on my blog and vlogs about my sister and her disabilities, I should be championing change that would make her life better. Thank you Celeste for helping me to see that, and I hope you all found this interview as inspiring as I did.